Film Review: The East

Gripping, intelligent and deeply socially conscious thriller—a singular combination—that hits the bull’s-eye both for satisfying entertainment and timely relevance.

The East begins with a pretty irresistible hook, focusing on a group of eco-terrorists bent on avenging world pollution created by uncaringly greedy corporations. Who hasn’t, for instance, wanted to see those jerks in charge at Exxon or British Petroleum really pay for all that crud in the ocean and heart-rending oil-smeared wildlife?

Sarah (Brit Marling), formerly with the FBI, now toils for the private sector’s Hiller/Brood, which specializes in undercover risk assessments for multinationals. She is assigned to infiltrate The East, a vigilante gang who’ve created a lot of havoc, ruining corporate fat cats’ homes with ingenious, homemade oil spills in their very living rooms, and the like. Led by the charismatic Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), The East is extremely cult-like with its vegan, ritualistic and games-playing ways. Sarah gets sucked in, in more ways than one, and the drama intensifies when she begins to feel for these ragtag activists—especially Benji—and their cause, while her power-hungry boss (Patricia Clarkson) keeps insisting she clamp down ever more on them.

Director Zal Batmanglij, who co-wrote the film with Marling, crafts an immediately gripping thriller that is all the more so for its socially conscious underpinnings. Although those high-living fat cats who don’t give a damn about Mother Earth are indeed worthy villains, Batmanglij maintains an admirably dry and measured approach, which avoids making high-commitment members of The East too self-righteously saintly, as they forage for meals in dumpsters, Freegan-style. Indeed, with their often absurd rituals (like a particularly unwieldy group eating exercise and a wackily jejune game of Spin the Bottle) and overtly p.c. humorlessness, they sometimes seem nearly as noxious as their foes. Many of the scenes involving the group in the ramshackle mansion they use as headquarters play like the purest deadpan comedy, with risible elements of surprise and embarrassment.

None of this prevents you from getting completely caught up, however, in the central, propulsive theme, and the tension—as well as the humor—Batmanglij and Marling creates makes this one of the smartest, most engaging and tough-minded films to come out of a major Hollywood studio in recent years. It’s the best feature inspired by the Occupy movement and has been filmed with an all-around technical smoothness and visual certitude that is a real yet unstressed joy to anyone interested in truly good moviemaking.

The wonderfully fresh Marling is, in her way, as purely no-nonsense good as Jessica Chastain was in Zero Dark Thirty, playing a similarly laser-focused yet conflicted character. The actress’ own background, with a Georgetown degree in economics, leaving a job at Goldman Sachs to pursue an acting career which she found stultifying in terms of the bimbo roles offered, prompting her to write her own material, undoubtedly accounts for much of the resonating, intelligent authenticity of the film. (She and Batmanglij also spent a summer on the road, immersing themselves in the Freegan, tent-community lifestyle.)

Skarsgård brings an easy, convincing charisma and shares a potently nervous, sexy chemistry with Marling. The scruffily ingratiating members of his gang all have their own entertaining quirks and foibles, some of them also literal physical victims of corporate pollution. Chief among them is Ellen Page as Izzy, who, with her ineffably butch and sober-sides air of superiority, is both infuriating and also very entertaining. She is matched by Clarkson, effectively cast against type, her usual air of cozy identifiability here replaced with a cold calculation that is scarily daunting. Jason Ritter plays Sarah’s perfect, perfectly understanding boyfriend, who is kept completely in the dark regarding her activities and long absences; one can almost see Marling smile as she wrote this character, fun retribution for generations of women in movies cast (and utterly wasted) in this very way.